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Paradise Blue

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 14, 2018

J. Alphonse Nicholson and Kristolyn Lloyd
Photo by Joan Marcus

Dominique Morisseau's Paradise Blue, which opened tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is a dazzling fireworks display of a play about an African American neighborhood in a corner of post-World War II Detroit that is on the verge of being steamrolled out of existence in the name of "urban blight control." As with any show of pyrotechnics, a few of the explosives fizzle out prematurely, but most land with a kinetic energy that calls to mind August Wilson's poetically haunted blending of realism and expressionism, and novelist Alice Walker's forceful voice on behalf of black women.

Ms. Morisseau, whose recent Skeleton Crew was a stunning exposé about the teetering lives of black auto plant workers, has proven herself to be a playwright to be reckoned with. Paradise Blue is a more ambitious work that employs a degree of hyperrealism to capture the essence of life for both the African American community and for the individuals who are both protected and trapped within the narrowing space over which they have marginal control.

The play is set in a jazz club known as the Paradise. It is one of many such clubs competing for customers in the Detroit neighborhood known as Black Bottom. The owner is a young man, a trumpet player named Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson, a pacing tiger on a hair trigger) who is considering selling the place to the city and using the money to escape Detroit and the demons that are eating him alive. In a time of both legal and de facto segregation, this is a rare area of black-owned businesses, and the idea of Blue "selling out" is one of the major themes explored here.

Blue is a difficult man to fathom, a mix of equal parts fear and rage. He has inherited the club and his personality from his monster of a father, and he is struggling to make a successful go of it while striving to subdue his barely contained emotions. The tough front he offers to the world is on the brink of collapse, affecting his business and his relationships. When the play opens, we learn he has lost his bassist, and he is putting his drummer P-Sam (a scrappy Francois Battiste) on hiatus. He plans to make do with a smaller combo, with himself soloing on trumpet, accompanied by his regular piano player Corn (Keith Randolph Smith), the designated peacemaker of the group. He also has plans for his girlfriend Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), the quiet young woman who cooks, cleans, and waitresses at the club, to be the combo's singer, even though we are told repeatedly that she has no talent in that area.

The tenuous equilibrium Blue has managed to maintain is pushed to the brink with the appearance of a stranger by the name of Silver (Simone Missick), who comes sashaying into the club one day as if she had invented the word "sashay." An alluring and confident widow, stylishly dressed in black and flashing a large wad of money, Silver is sure to remind you of Shug Avery, the smart, tough, and self-assured woman who becomes Celie's friend, lover, and mentor in "The Color Purple." There are some major differences, however, as Silver rents out a spare bedroom upstairs and proceeds to insert herself into everyone's life. She soon becomes the talk of Black Bottom, with whispers suggesting she is a Voodoo witch or a "black widow spider" who voraciously devours men. Indeed, she may or may not have killed her husband with the gun she keeps at hand.

As the play progresses, especially in its second half, the tone of hardscrabble realism takes on a more mythic air. Both P-Sam, who has won a large pot of money from playing the numbers, and Silver, who has quite a bit of cash of her own, are interested in buying out Blue before he capitulates to the city's offer. In what might be the most compelling lines in the play, P-Sam lays out his argument: "This ain't just your club. You might be the one to own it, but you ain't the one to make it. We all make this Paradise." His world may be small, but at least it is his. "I ain't goin' back to playin' background for them big bands. White man say, wear this, smile like this, sit like this, take your meal after these folk. I ain't doin' it!"

Meanwhile, the soft-spoken Pumpkin who feels sorry for the increasingly abusive Blue but who does not want to leave Black Bottom, has been watching every move. She is gradually discovering that she has a reserve of strength within her she had no idea was there. When she finds her voice, when the seed of empowerment Silver has planted in her starts to sprout, everyone had best stay out of her way.

Paradise Blue could profit from another round of revision. We would do well to know more about Blue's background and the dynamics of his relationship with Pumpkin to better understand what drives both of them. A side story in which Silver takes up with the tender-hearted Corn and begins to imagine the possibility of a different sort of life than the one she has known provides for some truly touching "Porgy and Bess" moments. But these throw the play off balance as events plunge headlong to their inevitable sorry end.

Despite the occasional rickety bits, however, it is quite possible to see Dominique Morisseau as the heir apparent to August Wilson, with Detroit being the center of her work just as Pittsburgh was for Wilson's ten-play cycle about the African American experience throughout the twentieth century. The fact that this production is being directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a masterful interpreter of Wilson's works (among them, award-winning revivals of The Piano Lesson and Jitney), certainly affects how it is being staged and performed. Yet Ms. Morisseau's voice and style and characterizations are decidedly her own, and there is a lot going on here that makes us eager to see more of what this gifted playwright has in store.

Paradise Blue
Through June 10
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: